A Buddhist Perspective on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Picture


The following reflection originally appeared in the newsletter I sent out on November 22nd, 2022.

Feel free to read just the bold words and skip the rest, maybe even only reading the sections that interest you. 



Here in the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday (and Native American Heritage Day on Friday).

In turn, today I’ll share a few reflections that come up for me around this time of year, particularly when using a Buddhist & meditative lens:


Three Types of Reactions to Thanksgiving

Borrowing from the Buddha’s teachings on vedanā (feeling tone), I’ve noticed there are three basic sentiments people have towards Thanksgiving. It either brings about:

  1. Pleasant feelings, where it’s a wonderful celebration of gratitude, connection, and abundance.
  2. Unpleasant feelings, where it may involve stress, busy-busy-busy, loneliness, conflict, acute awareness of poverty, or perhaps the anger & sadness born of reflecting on the fate of the native peoples we “celebrate” on this day.
  3. Neutral feelings, where it’s basically just another day on the calendar, or perhaps involves different activities but feels pretty blah.

Whichever of these sentiments you carry into Thanksgiving or “The Holiday Season” is completely valid and normal.  Personally, I’ve had years where it was mostly just one of the above, and others where all three seemed to merge together.

Whatever the sentiment, from a Buddhist perspective, we start from the ground of “right now, it’s like this.”  

In other words, feel free to ignore the advertisements and social messaging that tell you to see a bunch of people, have the best time ever, do all the things, or even be more grateful and generous.  You’re welcome to be just as you are, having just the experience you’re having.

With mindfulness, we learn to embrace all three sets of feelings with radical acceptance.

Here is a guided meditation I recorded on vedanā.



There is a seeming paradox in Buddhist practice: we greet however we are with radical acceptance, but also take directed action to cultivate goodness & release suffering.

In other words, rather than feel stressed and grumpy and then going into Thanksgiving and just being miserable and saying snippy things to people, we pause and say, “yes, right now it’s like this.  That’s okay.  I don’t need to hate myself for it.  I don’t need to launch into a reactive ‘fix it’ mode.  Instead, I can take a breath.  Feel my feet on the ground.  Come back to center.  Okay, now how to navigate from this perfectly imperfect ground?”

In other words, radical acceptance is the first step, while the second is intention.

In turn, speaking from that calm and grounded first step, how would you like to steer your heart and mind this Thanksgiving?  

In considering this question, put aside all that cultural messaging and pressure.  Really look inwards and touch into your genuine aspirations.  Your sincerity in answering this question determines to a large degree your well-being vs suffering.

More simply put: as you incline yourself, so you become.

For more on harnessing wise desire.



There is certainly a place for ritual and having a day of the year to emphasize certain virtues, like gratitude on Thanksgiving.

However, from a Buddhist perspective, gratitude is something to cultivate all year long, all life long.  In turn, I personally tend to think of Thanksgiving less as “the one day to be grateful,” and more as a day that offers me an opportunity to reflect on the role of gratitude in my life — is it well developed in my heart or could I some work there?

To go more into this, in the Pāli language of the Buddha, the word “kataññu” is usually translated to English as “gratitude,” but it more literally means “one who knows what has been done [for one’s benefit].”

For example, kataññu includes being acutely aware of the things other people have done that have helped you grow from a helpless little baby to a grown adult.  It includes recognizing that people have done acts of kindness they didn’t need to, like saying nice things to you or offering you emotional support during a difficult period.

Kataññu also includes indirect actions-that-benefited-you, such as feeling grateful towards the people that grew the cotton in your shirt, stitched it together, or transported it to a store near you. It could even include gratitude towards Planet Earth, the rivers, the shady trees, or the farm fields, as they have all benefited us tremendously.

In other words, gratitude in Buddhism is fundamentally relational — it instructs us to hold in our hearts all the myriad ways other beings support us on our human journey.

Curiously, in Buddhism, the word “kataññu” is almost always paired with the term “katavedi,” which means “one who helps in return,” or as I sometimes think of it, “generosity.”

Basically, Buddhism suggests that for one with a heart full of gratitude, they are compelled to act on that by being generous & doing things that benefit others.  Sometimes it’s a direct reciprocation, perhaps as simple as a smile or thank you.  Other times it’s more of a pay-it-forward thing, like being grateful for this newsletter and “helping in return” by being kind and generous to those you spend time with these next few days.

Weaving back to the beginning, is this form of gratitude, knowing what has been done for your benefit, present in your life all year round? 

If not, one of the possible intentions to steer your heart & mind is to use this Thursday as a time to reflect and see more deeply just how interconnected you are with others.  Maybe this can spark gratitude in your heart that leads you to live with an open generosity.

For one who lives with a heart of gratitude, happiness is sure to follow.

More on kataññu-katavedi from a Buddhist monk.


A Tale of Two Histories (Europeans and Native Americans)

In my early 20’s, I read “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn.

On top of being a life-changing read, one basic idea it left me with was to think of history from the point of view of the oppressed, rather than from the point of view of the “victor.”  This gels very nicely with a Buddhist perspective, as we are interested in the liberation of all beings (not just those like us).  In turn, when we consider events from the point of view of the voiceless and beaten down, we are able to expand our heart of compassion and also our capacity to support more people in moving towards well-being.

Anyhow, in the case of Thanksgiving, the “victor” was the European immigrants who arrived on Wampanoag land (current-day coastal Massachusetts), and sought to establish settlements by claiming that land as their own and removing or exterminating the prior inhabitants.  These “victors” eventually wrote the history books I read in my k to 12 education — you are undoubtedly familiar with that “story” of history.

But what if we were to tell the original Thanksgiving story from a Native American perspective?

As many Native Americans do, we might entitle that story, “A National Day of Mourning.”  Even further, we might use it to reflect upon the theft of Native American lands, the genocide of Native American peoples, and how the original “Thanksgiving Story” was not so much a big friendly feast, but instead, it was more like two candidates on a reality TV show making a begrudging alliance, with the one with bigger muscles ready to double-cross the other at the first sign of advantage.

And yet, as the testimonials at the bottom of this article or the ”way of life” section of this one show, even though there is a very painful history here, many, but certainly not all, Native Americans still gather on the 4th Thursday of November to celebrate.  The point made is that Native Americans have championed the values of gratitude, generosity, community, and connecting with the Earth for many thousands of years — long before the First Thanksgiving.

In turn, another paradox comes into being — how to both acknowledge the atrocities done to Native peoples and also continue to celebrate gratitude, generosity, community, and the sacredness of the land we walk upon?

On one level, as a descendant of Europeans, I’m not the most appropriate person to answer this question, though this article, written by Native Americans, offers some excellent guidance on supporting Native peoples this Thanksgiving, while this one shows some organizations to monetarily support.

However, on another level, as Buddhists, we can be-with whatever feelings are here, set a noble intention, lean into timeless human values like gratitude & generosity, and deepen our heart’s aspiration to stand in solidarity and support all beings, especially the oppressed. 

We can exist without needing concrete answers, be open to feedback, and to continue to refine our intentions.

This newsletter has been written from land traditionally stewarded by the Clackamas, Cowlitz, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes.  To find out who stewarded your land before European descendants stole it, visit here.



As you enter into your Thanksgiving, perhaps even one bit of this reflection may remain with you.

Although, to summarize, I’m advocating for a radical acceptance of what is paired with intentional action.  To be here for it all, without layering on guilt, hatred, self-criticism, self-distraction, or the attempt to hold onto the good stuff forever.

To see that right now it’s like this, and at the same time, look truth in the eyes, develop our hearts, and take action to deepen well-being in ourselves and our world.


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